The Death of the Family Dinner by
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Prompted By Mealtime

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Thanksgiving 1989

Growing up, we ate dinner together at 6:00 sharp. All hands were on deck as my mother served whatever she thought was a nutritious meal. It always included meat or fish, a starch, a vegetable or salad, and dessert. Mom’s menus tended to be similar. For example, salmon patties always went with mac and cheese, followed by chocolate pudding (the kind with the skin on top). There was no alternative choice for any of us who didn’t like the meal. This was the era of the clean plate club in which children were starving somewhere else. So, no matter how much my youngest brother cried and gagged trying to eat liver and onions, only the dog came to his aid.

The demise of the family dinner is definitely a loss.

There was one exception to our family dinner routine. At some point when we were considered old enough to use the oven, mom allowed us to “cook” our own dinner on Sundays. This consisted of Swanson TV dinners and we could choose whatever we liked. I remember my middle brother was obsessed with chicken pot pie. Perhaps this foreshadowed what I fed my kids on nights my husband was working late.

I definitely inherited a version of this model for family dinners. When my children were too young to wait until their father came home, I cooked a regular dinner for my husband and me but fed the kids fish sticks, mac and cheese, chicken nuggets, and Burger King on Mondays with a friend whose children also couldn’t wait much past 5:00 to eat dinner. I had a special recipe for the mac and cheese since my son only liked the plain buttered macaroni. After I removed his portion, his sisters had an extra-cheesy dish. They claimed for years that my mac and cheese was better than anyone else’s. I’ll confess that was pretty bad.

Once my kids were old enough to wait for my husband to get home, we ate together. Every night. It was a time to catch up on everyone’s daily activities, which did not interfere with dinner hour back then. While I eliminated the automatic dessert, I pretty much stuck to my mother’s formula. The biggest difference was that we could eat chicken. Since my father hated it, my mother never served it. Also, I allowed the kids to make pb&j if they didn’t like the meal I cooked. At some point, the microwave entered our lives, allowing a bit more choice if my meal didn’t please someone. Still, we ate together, each in our own assigned seats that allowed for separating three children so they couldn’t kick or maim each other.

Fast forward to my kids’ families, and I fear the family dinner has pretty much bitten the dust. Outside activities no longer respect the concept of a family eating together. Islands with stools, processed convenience foods, and microwave ovens have made family dinner more like eating at the counter of a diner. Everyone eats what they want when they want, which is made possible by the variety of foods that can be quickly nuked to please every palate. Ordering in, a concept limited to an occasional pizza in my day, is a way of life for them. With activities like dance classes, swim practices, soccer games, cross country, music lessons, and a multitude of sports practices, they rarely eat at the same time. The only time they all sit down together is on a holiday or in a restaurant.

The demise of the family dinner is definitely a loss. It was at the dinner table that we talked about our day, expressed our ideas, learned some basic table manners, and connected as a family. We used to have extended family dinners for holidays, and my assignment was Thanksgiving (see featured photo). That has also gone by the wayside as families got too large and only one of my kids lives in town. Between the pandemic and the logistics of getting everyone here from out of town, we don’t break bread together as an extended family for holidays anymore. That is the biggest loss of all for me.

Out to dinner together, 1982

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Profile photo of Laurie Levy Laurie Levy
Boomer. Educator. Advocate. Eclectic topics: grandkids, special needs, values, aging, loss, & whatever. Author: Terribly Strange and Wonderfully Real.

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Characterizations: been there, moving, right on!, well written

Comments

  1. John Shutkin says:

    As you can imagine, Laurie, I completely agree with you about the sad demise of family dinners. So thnak you for also so eloquently writing about it. I hope that, post-pandemic there may be a revival of it, but first we have to get past the pandemic. And yes; turn off the football games at Thanksgiving.

    Dare I admit that I actually liked the Swanson TV dinners — at least the fried chicken ones — as a kid? What was I thinking? And now, knowing that Tucker Carlson is an heir to the Swanson fortune, I (retroactively) hate them even more.

    • Laurie Levy says:

      I didn’t know that about Tucker. Wish I could have thrown them in the trash in retrospect. Football is one factor, but phones are worse. If I serve dinner to my kids/grandkids, I make them put away all electronics at the table.

  2. Betsy Pfau says:

    First, I love your Thanksgiving Featured photo around the table with your mother. Really lovely.

    Making early meals for your kids but waiting to eat an adult dinner with your husband sounds like a lot of work, though I’m sure it had its rewards as well. But you are correct, with the extra-curricular schedules these days, the family meal is a thing of the past.

    • Laurie Levy says:

      Not only was it a pain to make two dinners, but I ate both times. Not a great habit. I think that’s why I gave them such awful food. But they all feed their kids much healthier fare, just not all at the same time. Sigh.

  3. Marian says:

    I lament the loss of the family dinner with you, Laurie, especially because, as I got into my teens, I learned a lot about what was going on with other family members. And now that extended families live so far away, it’s hard to get together for holidays. I do miss those large gatherings. All that said, I don’t know how I lived without a microwave–although obviously we all did!

    • Laurie Levy says:

      It’s been tough being apart from family members during the pandemic. Holidays have been a bit hollow. Like you, I miss knowing what it going on in the lives of those I love. Zoom and FaceTime are no substitutes for breaking bread together.

  4. Suzy says:

    I’m sad to hear of the demise of the family dinner. It was certainly an important part of my growing up. If I ever have grandchildren (unlikely), I will find out whether it survives in my family or not.

    Thanks for the picture of the Swanson TV Dinner – it actually made me salivate! Those things were amazingly good, considering the state of freezing technology at the time. And that little apple cake cobbler, wow! If you tried to eat that first, you would burn your tongue on it. (Hmm, how did I know that?)

    Great story, well organized and well written, as always. I love the family photos too.

  5. Dave Ventre says:

    I sometimes envy “family dinners.” While we usually ate together at the dinner table, we really didn’t do much along the lines of telling one another about our day. Sometimes one or more of us would take it into the living room to watch TV while eating off one of those classic mid-century modern folding snack tables, or which we had a fancy set of four that “fell off a truck.” Only on major holidays did we all sit together for a meal for a longish period of time.

  6. John Zussman says:

    Thanks for sharing this, Laurie. Your story portrays your childhood and motherhood dinners beautifully but still I find it terribly sad that your grandchildren don’t enjoy the tradition that you tried so hard to pass on. I wonder how your children feel about it, who grew up with that tradition but were somehow unable to continue it with their own children. Do you think they make up for it in other areas of their lives?

    • Laurie Levy says:

      I’m not sure, Joh. The are devoted parents and don’t ever seem to have enough time, especially during the pandemic. My grandkids notion of family dinners are those that happen in restaurants or at my table. It makes me sad.

  7. Times have changed for sure Laurie!

    Growing up we ate dinner as a family during the week, and on weekends often ate out, usually at one of our two or three favorite neighborhood restaurants that in my child’s mind I thought were all very elegant! (They certainly weren’t!) In fact my Sweet Sixteen luncheon was at the one I thought the most elegant!

    Then as a young wife and mother, altho I never enjoyed cooking, I made dinner most weeknights, and on weekends enjoyed going out to restaurants, and hosted and was invited to dinner parties with friends..

    But at some point – maybe when we became empty-nesters – we began eating out more often, and rather than bothering with dinner parties, we’d meet friends at restaurants. Of course Covid has changed things, but in recent years we might eat home only 2-3 nights a week, and out the other nights.

    But perhaps the pendulum is swinging as I see my son and many of his friends love to cook and host each other.
    Go figure!

  8. Khati Hendry says:

    I wonder if other generations of families will find other ways to connect that we didn’t have. I hope so, because it is so important to do somehow, if not at the dinner table.

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